By the time her husband brought her to the United States, Marisela Andrade had already borne the brunt of his anger repeatedly. The recently married 18-year-old knew that the move would not stop his violence, but she never imagined that her new life would include being trafficked, arrested and sentenced to life without parole.
Now age 44, Andrade has survived and overcome all of these horrors. In 2018, California’s then-Gov. Jerry Brown commuted her sentence to 15 years to life, enabling her to apply for parole. She did so in 2021 and was granted parole.
But instead of walking out of prison, she was met by immigration officers who handcuffed her and drove her to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holding facility in Fresno. Later, she was transferred to an ICE prison in Aurora, Colorado, far from her family and the support network she’d built during her 15 years in prison.
Now, she faces deportation to a country she has not lived in since the first month of her marriage.
“I Don’t Have Good Memories”
Andrade was 15 years old when she met the man who would become her husband — and trafficker. They married three years later. On their wedding night, her husband beat his 18-year-old bride. It wouldn’t be the last time he hit her.
The next month, the couple moved from Mexico to California. Andrade doesn’t know why they moved. “He never said anything to me,” she told Truthout. “There was no explanation of why we were doing this.”
By then, Andrade had learned to do everything that her husband said or risk a beating. That didn’t change when they arrived at her husband’s brother’s house. She stayed in the room that the couple shared, coming out only to cook meals for the family.
“I was scared of him,” she explained. “I always did whatever he wants. I didn’t come out without his permission [or] he would beat me up.”
The abuse continued after she became pregnant. During her first pregnancy, her husband beat her so hard that she miscarried. After that, the couple had three daughters. They became another means of abuse — her husband threatened to take the children if she ever attempted to report his violence. Terrified, she remained quiet.
Then, he began forcing her to have sex with other men. The first time was with one his friends. She cried and asked the man why he was forcing himself on her. “I already paid for you,” he responded.
Over the next several years, her husband forced her to have sex with several other men. “I don’t understand why my husband did that to me,” she said. “Because when somebody loves you or you marry somebody, they shouldn’t do what my husband was doing to me. They shouldn’t hit me.” But she was unsure what she could do. “I’m coming from a little town in Mexico and here was a different world,” she recalled.
She also feared for her daughters. She tried to keep them with her, but that did not protect them from her husband’s wrath. Once, he beat their 4-year-old for taking items off the door.
Within a year, Andrade had had enough. “I felt, at that time, it was him or me,” she said. “I was so tired of the domestic violence. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my daughters.” By then, her daughters were a year-and-a-half, 5 and nearly 11. She feared that the sexual abuse would extend to them.
She broke the silence, confiding in her sister-in-law. That sister-in-law introduced Marisela to the man who would become her co-defendant in her husband’s death. Andrade recalled that she told him what had been happening and recruited him to beat her husband. “I wanted him to feel the way I feel,” she said. The two made plans by text and, on the agreed-upon night, Andrade placed sleeping pills in her husband’s coffee and left the door unlocked. Her co-defendant kidnapped and killed him. His body was later found in the trunk of the man’s car.
Andrade was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping. At the time, Andrade believed she was only guilty of kidnapping because she had enlisted someone to beat her husband, but firmly believed that she was innocent of murder. She went to trial — and lost. She was sentenced to life without parole.
“It was hard to understand the life sentence,” she recalled. But she remembered vowing, “One day, I will come out.”
One Step Closer to Freedom?
When Andrade arrived at Valley State Prison for Women, she spoke no English. She had heard that prisons were full of drugs and sexual assaults and, terrified, barely left her cell. Many imprisoned at Valley State spoke no Spanish, leaving Andrade isolated with her fears.
Her brother took custody of her daughters. He kept her updated on their lives. Andrade wrote letters regularly, though the girls never responded.
Slowly, with the help of the women around her (and cartoons), she began to learn English. She enrolled in the prison’s self-help groups, including those that focused on domestic violence and abuse dynamics. She vowed never to get into trouble again. And she kept that promise. During this time, she never incurred a rule violation, disciplinary infraction or even an administrative infraction, or an action as inconsequential as having too many pieces of property, being late or absent from work or a program, using vulgar language, or failure to comply with prison grooming standards.
Still, her chances of freedom seemed remote. One day, she overheard a conversation in the prison yard and the word “commutation.” She stopped and asked the woman about that word.
She … was granted parole. But instead of walking out of prison, she was met by immigration officers who handcuffed her.
Commutation is a form of clemency which shortens a person’s prison sentence. For Californians serving life without parole, it is their only chance at leaving prison alive if they have exhausted their legal appeals.
The woman told her what forms to request from the prison library. Then, she helped Andrade fill them out and send them.
Many people applying for commutations wait years for a response. But by the next year, Andrade was called for an interview. She described her marriage, the abuse and her responsibility for setting in motion her husband’s death.
In 2018, citing her history of significant abuse, efforts to transform her life and lack of prison disciplinary history, Governor Brown commuted her sentence to 15 years to life. It made her eligible to appear before a parole hearing, but she still had to convince the board to let her go.
Three years later, she appeared at her first hearing. She was one of 62 people in California women’s prisons granted parole that year. She was elated, though it would not be the end of her time behind bars.
The Dual System of Justice
Andrade had not realized that her conviction could lead to deportation. Though a parole commissioner mentioned an ICE detainer at her hearing, Andrade did not understand. She began making plans for her release and envisioning a life without fear and violence.
One week before her release, prison officials told Andrade that she would not walk out of prison a free woman. Instead, they kept her for five additional days until immigration officers could take her to immigrant detention to await deportation hearings. It’s an occurrence so common that advocates call it the prison-to-deportation pipeline.
Andrade was frightened about returning to Mexico, where her life would be in danger. Fortunately, another incarcerated woman had connected her with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an advocacy group for incarcerated women and trans people in California. The coalition had been reaching out to people serving life without parole in the state’s women’s prisons. The coalition was part of ICE Out of California, a coalition of 100 community and statewide coalitions working to end state agencies’ cooperation with ICE.
When they learned about the ICE detainer, the group began a campaign urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to grant her a pardon, which would remove the threat of deportation.
Two days before her December release date, ICE decided to hold Andrade without bond. The agency charged her as removable because of her conviction, which ICE classified as an aggravated felony that rendered her deportable. On her release date, immigration officials took her from the prison to a private immigration prison in Aurora, Colorado.
She’s not alone. According to ICE Out of California, California state prisons transferred 3,200 people to ICE custody between 2019 and 2020.
In September 2021, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memorandum with guidelines for detention and deportation. Those guidelines prioritized noncitizens who were classified as threats to national security, border security and public safety. But the memo also listed several mitigating factors that favored not pursuing detention and deportation, including a person’s status as the victim of a crime and whether that person was eligible for humanitarian or other immigration relief. (In June 2022, a federal court in Texas vacated that memo, but it had been in effect when ICE made its decision to detain and begin deportation proceedings against Andrade.)
Two days before her December release date, ICE decided to hold Andrade without bond.
In 2022, California senators failed to pass a bill that might have helped thousands of future Mariselas. The VISION Act would have blocked state prisons and jails from transferring noncitizens to ICE custody once they completed their sentences. It passed the State Assembly, but fell three votes short of passing in the State Senate. But even if the legislature had approved it, Governor Newsom had already vetoed similar legislation in 2019, stating that it could “negatively impact prison operations.”
This year, advocates are at the legislature with a modified bill — the HOME (Harmonizing Our Measures for Equality) Act, which blocks transfers of noncitizen incarcerated people who have been released through recently enacted criminal justice reforms, such as youth parole, elder parole, or a bill allowing resentencing for domestic violence survivors. It would also protect immigrants and refugees who have been granted clemency, such as Andrade. The act only applies to cooperation between state prisons and ICE. It does not extend to local jails, which between 2018 and 2019 transferred 3,700 people into ICE custody.
The act’s author, Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, stated at a press conference, “The state of California has created a dual system of justice, which treats immigrants differently after they have paid their debt to society and have been paroled. They are not given the opportunity to restart their lives and go home,” she said. “It is a complete injustice in our judicial system.”
Pam Fadem, who works with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners on immigrant defense and the campaign to free Andrade, agrees. Both the VISION and HOME Acts would apply to noncitizens who have already finished their prison sentences or been approved for release by the governor’s appointed parole board. “If you’re being paroled, you’ve been deemed rehabilitated and no longer a threat to the community,” she stated.
Furthermore, Fadem reminded Truthout, California is a sanctuary state: “We should be providing sanctuary to people.” Many of the people with whom the ICE out of California coalition work came to the United States as children. Although she had been married one month earlier, Andrade, at age 18, was little more than a child when she arrived in the U.S. “This is their home, not someplace that was their ancestral home,” Fadem said.
While neither bill protects against deportation, Fadem notes that being allowed to return home can mean the difference between staying and deportation. “If people have the chance to go home, they can establish their roots in the community, in their faith communities, in their families and in working. Then they have a stronger argument against deportation,” she pointed out. “When you hand somebody directly over to ICE directly from prison, what can you say when you get to immigration court [and the judge asks] ‘What have you been doing for the past 10, 15, 20 years while you’ve been in prison?’” But those who have been allowed to rebuild their lives can show their ties to the community and have a stronger argument against uprooting them from these ties.
Andrade agrees. Had she been released into the community instead of transferred to ICE detention, she would have already been able to start working and established herself in the community. She would be much further along in reconnecting with her daughters.
Free But Still Under Threat of Deportation
Andrade spent the next 14 months in an immigrant prison in Colorado, far from her support network, without a bond hearing.
There, she filed an application requesting protection under the Convention Against Torture. It was initially denied but, upon appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the judge had not considered all relevant evidence. That application is still pending.
In December 2022, with the help of advocates, Andrade also filed an application for a pardon.
A pardon is another form of clemency that the governor can issue. For noncitizens, a pardon removes the threat of deportation. It also restores a person’s civil rights, making them eligible for jobs that otherwise bar those with felony convictions.
Although Andrade had been moved thousands of miles from friends, family and advocates, they did not stop fighting for her. After she filed her pardon application, they organized monthly email and telephone blasts to Governor Newsom, urging him to pardon Andrade. They connected her with an immigration attorney who is helping her apply for asylum under the Convention Against Torture.
“Ms. Andrade’s home is here in the United States,” Marisela’s attorney Julia Rabinovich told Truthout. “She left Mexico as a teenager, and now faces credible threats on her life should she be deported to Mexico.”
In March, a federal judge ruled that Andrade’s 14-month detention without a bond hearing violated her constitutional right to due process. On March 29, she was released on bond. She was allowed to return to California, where she now is not only rebuilding her life, but learning what it feels like to make her own choices, including what to wear and what to eat. She has learned that she loves Chinese and Japanese foods, which her husband, who continually kept her on a diet to keep her from gaining weight, never allowed her to try.
If allowed to remain in the United States, Andrade plans to go back to school. While in prison, she worked with people with disabilities. Now, she hopes to work with aging people.
“In the United States, Ms. Andrade can not only continue to heal from the abuse she suffered, but can also serve as a leader and mentor for others,” Rabinovich said. “Ms. Andrade believes no one deserves to suffer in silence, and if she is able to stay here in the United States, she plans to share her story and offer resources and hope to other survivors of abuse, so that their lives can have a different trajectory than her own.”
And, though her future remains uncertain, Andrade wants to help others the way that the California Coalition for Women Prisoners helped her. If she could speak directly to Governor Newsom, she would ask, “Give me an opportunity. I can demonstrate that I’m not a danger to society. I want to help with my testimony to help others, so they don’t make these same mistakes that I do in life.”